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INSIGHT: Communication Issues in A/E/C Firms

10 predominant communications failures that hinder both individual career growth and business success.

By Donna L. Maltzan
October 6, 2016

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from a lecture originally given by Donna Maltzan at Cooper Union in the spring of 2016.


Technical proficiency is merely the threshold to a successful career in the stellar A/E/C firms with which I work! Emotional Intelligence, including excellent communication skills, is essential for career advancement. Statistics from the insurance industry support the value of strong communication skills. According to Poole Professional, a professional liability insurance firm:

·       Non-technical errors account for 70-80% of claims;

·       “A failure to communicate” accounts for nearly 40% of the number of claims and 30% of the dollar value of claims.


My experience with A/E/C professionals has shown the following 10 issues to be the predominant communications failures that hinder both individual career growth and business success.


1)     Communicating at an inappropriate level of detail

This sounds fairly innocuous, but busy people, whether clients or bosses, often don’t need or want details explained that they already know, already understand, or simply have no need to hear. More junior level professionals need to learn to provide “executive summaries” rather than every detail, every time. This mistake is sometimes related to an analytical behavioral style, which can make change difficult. The trick is to learn that reporting every step is not always essential in order to demonstrate that the analysis was thorough.


2)     Communications that are too technical, sometimes using acronyms or jargon

Clients often have a different level of technical expertise than the A/E/C professionals with whom they work. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid, so “talking down” to them is an equally fatal mistake. In addition, other team members may well have technical expertise in a different realm: They may be technically competent in a completely different language. Success on a project team involves communicating in language that others can understand, despite the technical nuances you believe are better communicated with technically specific terms.


3)     Lack of direct recommendations

This issue is a particular problem for professionals moving from junior staff positions into a project manager’s role. Earlier in their careers, professionals are expected to do the analysis and prepare the details to support the pros and cons of alternatives, at which point the boss makes the recommendations to the client. Additionally, professionals are initially taught not to argue with a client, to always agree, to get along with clients. At a later stage in the professional’s development, this may be interpreted to mean that the client should be asked to make the decision. Respect for the client may be confused with “following orders,” when in fact the client expects technical professionals to express an opinion, to look out for the client by taking a stand. Particularly when a professional has a naturally non-confrontational behavioral style, this issue may be amplified.


4)     Authoritarian communications

This remains an issue for some senior staff, particularly when interacting with millennials. Telling anyone to “do it because I said so” can be problematic. But directing a millennial without including the “why” is even more challenging. Effective communications often break down when senior staff persist in thinking that the way it worked for them should be fine for new generations.


5)     Communicating difficult news

Typical difficult conversations include:

·        Giving a client bad news (“we made a mistake” or “we can’t meet the schedule we promised”)

·        Giving corrective feedback to an employee (when you’re the boss, performance reviews have to include constructive feedback that isn’t always positive)

·        Saying “no” to a client, or to your boss


These conversations are difficult or unpleasant for most people. There are entire courses on this topic, but key elements of successfully handling a difficult conversation include:

·        Don’t wing it: have a plan

·        Plan to listen: plan a question to encourage the person to speak

·        Be succinct

·        Be calm, direct, and neutral

·        Provide context (the whole world has not come to an end)

·        Listen

·        Come prepared with a potential Action Plan

With careful planning, these conversations can be more comfortable and have better outcomes.


6)     Poorly run meetings

Bad meeting management is an enormous waste of time and cause of frustration. Key factors in poorly run meetings include:

·        Wrong people in the room (not everyone there is needed to make a decision)

·        No agenda and/or no stated purpose

·        Tangential conversations

·        Repetitive commentary

·        No stated timeframes for agenda items

·        No next-step action planning

Recommended reading: Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni.


7)     Failure to make the connection to the Big Picture

The pieces or phases or steps of a project require discussion and explanation, but the import and meaning is lost without tying those pieces to the bigger picture. Especially when communicating technical information, the specifics need to be tied explicitly to the goal, the mission, something bigger than a single layer of the task. This is an example with financial impact from the engineering world:

An engineer could tell a client the list of equipment needed and associated costs for that equipment. If the engineer leaves out the associated work that (to the engineer) is also obviously needed, the client may ultimately be surprised at the true, total costs. You can imagine the angst this can cause! Two good questions to ask in this situation might have been:

“What else do I need to communicate so that my client gets the whole picture?” OR

“What am I assuming that my client may not assume?”


8)     Communication that does not lead to action

Discussions about theory and theoretical problem solving may be quite interesting to professionals. However, clients are typically looking for solutions and problem solving that happens as quickly as possible. The project team’s focus should be moving a project along, making it happen, and not endless discussion for the pleasure of discussion. A personal interest in a theory may well make a professional better suited to recommend the best actions. But most clients will appreciate the professional’s recommendations for action more than a professional’s interest in theoretical distinctions.


9)     Lack of clarity or specificity

Memos, meetings, and reports that merely generalize and don’t clearly define the crux, the heart, and the point are enormous communication issues. Asking:

“What precisely do you mean to say?” or “Why does that matter?” leads a speaker or writer toward clarity and specifics.


10)  Poor listening skills

Defined broadly, listening well depends on using all senses to try to understand.    Not just ears, but the eyes and heart provide information that aids understanding.

Learning to listen fully is the magic bullet that makes many of the communication issues described in #1–9 disappear.

Active listening, or listening to understand includes:

·   Eye contact

·   Reading body language, the non-verbals

·   Taking notes (in part to keep the listener focused)

·   Periodic paraphrasing to confirm understanding (“Did I get that right?”)

·   Empathic listening: paraphrasing the feelings, interests, or values of the speaker


“There’s hearing. Then there’s listening.”

– Samaritan’s billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike.



Donna L. Maltzan is a trainer, facilitator, and coach who recently relocated back to Upstate New York. She has had her own business since 1998, and focuses on communications skills (presentation, listening, coaching, and constructive feedback skills), business development, and time management skills training. Maltzan holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Wells College and an MBA from Northeastern.


Also by Maltzan:


Nuts + Bolts #12: The Importance of Mentorship: Debunking Mentoring Myths in the AEC Industry
Mentoring can help anyone make meaningful professional connections, and it should be considered rewarding and an honor for everyone involved.


Nuts + Bolts #6: Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management
Some practical steps to make time for business development when you've been avoiding it or aren't sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Courtesy The Science Mom